A fortuitous encounter of two great minds has led to a French-Monegasque theater co-production set to become one of this year’s cultural highlights.

Federico Fellini’s La Strada, one of cinema’s all-time classics, has been reproduced in many ways over the decades – but hardly ever as originally and creatively as in the theatrical production that Les Farfadets have developed. After its recent successful première at Espace Magnan, “Gelsomina” will be touring several stages around the Riviera this year.

It all began when leading French actor Marc Duret met Sophie Cossu, the Head of Monaco’s highly regarded Farfadets theater company, last year. They immediately discovered to not only share an Italian heritage but also a compatible artistic perspective, and it didn’t take long for the two to decide to work together. The material was decided on quickly – Sophie had a theatrical adaptation of Fellini’s venerable La Strada in mind, and Marc offered to co-direct and present it during his annual artistic residence at Espace Magnan.

To tackle a piece as well-known as this, with the daunting prospect of doing the great Italian filmmaker justice, and standing up to Anthony Quinn’s and Giulietta Masini’s grand performances, takes guts. Lots of guts. And great fresh ideas. Marc and Sophie just happen to have both, in addition to ample talent. It would therefore not be yet another rehash but rather a loose adaptation, telling the story of Gelsomina and Zampano’s encounter and journey together.

The cast of Gelsomina at Espace Magnan in Nice

It is a fable of philosophical simplicity, of two people as different as night and day who eventually both approach one another before parting ways. Zampano, a brutish circus artist with no roots and no ties, takes simple-minded young Gelsomina from her village to travel and perform together. The two have nothing in common, and Zampano treats Gelsomina poorly.

Just as she gets disheartened and is ready to leave, Il Matto, the Fool, comes into her life. He teaches her that everyone, no matter how inexperienced or seemingly worthless, is precious, and she slowly learns to appreciate her own value. Unbeknownst to her, she also penetrates Zampano’s hard shell who gradually rediscovers long-forgotten emotions buried deep inside.

In its original version the story is rather dark, shedding a harsh light on the strange pair’s opposing personalities. Marc and Sophie though decided on a more lighthearted version. Narrator and protagonist at the same time, Gelsomina skillfully interweaves presence and past, emotions and gentle humour. The original story’s beauty is respected by keeping the play deliberately uncluttered and reduced to the basics while bringing it to life through the strength of dialogue, creativity, playfulness, and insinuations engaging the audience’s imagination.

Simple as the plot is, it is complex in terms of stage production: Traveling on the open road from village to village, from venue to venue on a motorcycle with a carriage attached to it takes considerable ingenuity to reproduce on stage. Marc and Sophie do the right thing: instead of rushing through multiple changes of scenery and props, they prefer the understated elegance of two stylistic elements setting this piece apart from any other version: They work with a black and white video and photography backdrop from the period the play is set in, suggesting road trips, locations, and local encounters. And they tell the story bilingually in French and Italian.

The Great Zampano and Gelsomina on the motorbike

Both of these elements, along with Zampano’s rickety trailered motorcycle, instantly transport the audience back to Fellini’s Italy of the 1950s, to an era of itinerant artists roaming poor and dusty corners of the country trying to scrape by… an era when on the surface traditional values are still kept up but when morals are set aside when no one appears to be looking.

For all its complexity, and with the exception of a brief appearance of Il Matto, the Fool, the play is carried only by Zampano and Gelsomina. An ambitious artistic adventure for Marc and Sophie, considering both are not only the protagonists but also co-directors, with the added dimension of continually jumping back and forth between two languages. And both do a marvelous job.

Marc Duret once again proves why he is rightfully regarded one of the best actors in France and beyond. His play is so powerful, so physical, so multi-layered, so convincingly macho as if he was born Zampano… and yet full of the esprit, energy, and tangible joy that are so characteristic of him. As a co-director, he firmly puts his signature on the play, giving it perfect rhythm and keeping acting performances out of overly emotional territory, allowing instead the audience to be pulled into the scene. Marc is capable of anything but one: he simply cannot misstep.

Sophie Cossu embodies Gelsomina in every way, as if the role was written for her – and for this play it actually was, by none other than Sophie herself. To portray a young woman stuck in her childhood – with that endearing mix of naiveté and wisdom of the heart that only children possess – without overplaying the character, is an artistic challenge of considerable magnitude of which Sophie avails herself with bravado. Wearing the co-director hat, she signs responsible for the visuals, aesthetics, and technology from sound to lighting, music, video, and photography which all complement the play to perfection.

Gelsomina in Espace Magnan in Nice April 2014

And Il Matto…. Kevin Pastore, a member of Sophie’s Farfadets, brings an artistic sensitivity to the role of the wise and poetic Fool that is simply touching. There is magic in the air when Il Matto seduces Gelsomina… not as a man but as a teacher. He pays dearly for the love he inspires in her but leaves behind the fundamental truth that everyone is valuable and has a purpose in life.

With a production consciously reduced to its basics, the story is supported by powerful video, sound, and lighting effects that masterfully enhance the narration without ever intruding. Although complex to handle both for the actors on stage as well as for the tech crew, everything works seamlessly together, keeping impeccable timing.

Plays like this one are rare gems. Even if labeled “artistic residence”, defined as a time of creative experiment rather than having the final version already firmly in place, this Gelsomina is ready. Ready for its upcoming shows scheduled in Monaco at Théâtre des Variétés (May16 and 17), in Nice at Théâtre de la Cité (May 23-25), and in Villeneuve-Loubet at Pôle Auguste Escoffier (September 26- 28) … but also ready for any big national stage that were to come knocking on Zampano’s motorcycle carriage asking to bring it to them. A beautiful, timeless, profoundly touching story well told, leaving an imprint on your heart both for its message and the performances of all involved.

Curtain call for cast of Gelsomina at Espace Magnan

Photographs of motorbike and cast curtain call © and courtesy Louis-Paul Fallot; all other images courtesy Les Farfadets



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